WASHINGTON — Prominent
The move seeks to address widespread public anxiety about the uneven economic recovery, a topic that Democrats have largely had to themselves in recent months. But even as party strategists push for a higher-profile approach, conservative lawmakers face a difficult challenge in crafting a message that appeals to middle-income and working-class voters while maintaining support among the party base.
It's the latest acknowledgment that Republicans' traditional emphasis on fiscal austerity and smaller government — while popular among grass-roots conservatives and gospel to much of their House majority — has been difficult to sell among the broader electorate. As Republicans approach a midterm election in which they hope to recapture the Senate, they are increasingly worried about being portrayed by Democrats as hard-hearted and unconcerned about the plight of poor and struggling Americans.
On Wednesday, Sen.
Speaking from the Senate's
"Our current government programs offer, at best, only a partial solution," Rubio said. "They help people deal with poverty, but they do not help them escape it."
For conservatives like Rubio, a key challenge will be reconciling a call for a greater focus on the needy with Republican efforts to scale back existing programs designed to assist low-income Americans, such as
A prominent liberal group on Wednesday said it was "unfathomable" that Rubio would give a speech on poverty a day after he voted against advancing a Senate bill to extend unemployment insurance for 1.3 million Americans, whose monthly benefits stopped last month.
Republicans learned about the risks of appearing callous to poor and middle-class concerns during the 2012 presidential race, when Republican candidate
Fred Malek, a prominent Republican donor and advisor, said income inequality was fast becoming "one of the great issues of this generation" and warned that Republicans needed to tackle it.
"We need a 'man on the moon' approach to this," he said. "There is a 47% that don't pay taxes, but we don't criticize them. We want to lift all boats. We want to provide them opportunities to rise above that."
But Malek, who has worked closely with Republican governors, said congressional Republicans may not be the best messengers for the party on poverty issues.
"What we've seen is stagnation here in Washington," he said. "Yet in state capitals, particularly those that are run by the 29 Republican governors, we've seen a lot of reforms — a lot of action."
As Rubio was unveiling his plan on Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader
The dueling events, and other recent moves by key party figures, suggest agreement on broad principles, but still no consensus about what specific policies Republicans should champion.
New Jersey Gov.
On Thursday, Rep.
It's not the first time Republicans have waded into the issue. In his 2000 presidential campaign, then-Texas Gov.
For some Republicans, the focus on poverty serves to buttress their long-held view that President
"The mere fact that we're talking about extending unemployment benefits again is a proclamation that the economic policies of this administration are failing," said Rep.
But congressional Democrats made a stand Wednesday to preserve the mantle of advocates for the poor. Rep.
"If we are to make serious progress in the War on Poverty in the years to come, it will have to be as a result of both parties working together to prioritize economic opportunity and upward mobility, not by telling the most vulnerable Americans that they'll have to fend for themselves," he said.